The gentle burning of the cheap DeWars they serve on transatlantic KLM flights reminded me of the sun I’d felt on my skin not six hours ago in the Old South of Amsterdam. I’d been sitting on a comfortable cushion in the open courtyard, sipping a typical Dutch latté while I waited for an old friend at the College Hotel near the museumplein of the old Dutch Capital.
But for whiskey to feel that way you have to drink it right. And it’s complicated. Draw half a breath, and then take a sip. And remember, it works best with the middle to low tiers of whiskies, or any scotch younger than ten years. Twelve is too old, too smooth for the right effect. You need the harsh stuff for the right kind of burning. When the liquor is in your mouth, swirl it a bit, but not too much. It’s not wine, dammit, and isn’t activated by oxygen, but rather by settling into itself. So swirl it in your mouth just enough to coat the interior of your oral cavity with the liquid gold and then open your lips and take another slight breath, stopping just before it burns to the point where your cough instinct takes over. Don’t let that happen — that’s bad form and you’ll look like a freshman jackass, so avoid it at all costs.
As soon as you feel yourself reach that burning point, stop inhaling and begin slowly letting the air out. If you can, simultaneously begin swallowing the whiskey, or rather, letting it fall down your throat. You’ll think of the sun on your skin right away, and you’ll know what I mean.
You’ll feel hairs tingling as your skin cells expand from the sudden warmth. Comfort will set in on your exposed arms first, and then your face. As the warmth penetrates your clothes, your core will begin to equalize, and if it’s summer in Amsterdam, you can go from chilly to too hot as quickly as a cloud can roll past the sun in high wind. It’s a frightening show of how fickle and dependant our bodies can be on the planet. But for those first five or ten seconds, it also feels damn good.
Which is how I felt in that morning warmth, just before it got too hot and my back started sweating against the courtyard cushions. I’d been sitting there for a while, drinking ice water while I waited for 10:30 to come. That’s when Vera, my agent and lead in Amsterdam, had agreed to meet me. She preferred that kind of setting, an open courtyard in a classy hotel in the chic part of town by her office, where you can have a fresh morning drink to interrupt your work and “feel as if you’re abroad,” as she put it. Or maybe she’d meant ‘a broad’, which is accurate too, I guess, for her.
Me, I prefer dark old pubs and bars with aged oak railings that carry the names of their proprietors’ grandfathers. Places where the floor sticks if you don’t step in the right places and where coffee is served only to water down the bourbon.
But I guess at 10:30 in the morning, this place was more appropriate — yeah, I can see that.
Unmistakable, whether from a distance or from across a few empty tables on a Friday morning, Vera loves to wear yellow. From brights to dulls, she has yellow blouses, skirts, shoes, gold bracelets, pendants, earings, purse, car and on colder days, leggings. She loves it. Even her credit card is yellow. She wears a grey scarf and red sunglasses, which disturbs me in terms of continuity, but suffice it to say, I didn’t miss seeing her in that empty gravel courtyard and waving her down towards my table.
I’m not a fan of that kind of attention, of course, and I prefer for my leads to be slightly more conspicuous. Those of you who know me know that my profile is kept low for reasons that involve contact identity protection issues, statute of limitations in certain countries and a general sense of paranoia which, despite its social inconveniences, has kept me in business all these years. So keep your comments to yourselves.
We started off with the usual chit chat about the Dutch and our mutual dislikes for some of their habits, such as waiting tables and actually bringing you what you ordered. See, Vera is no more Dutch than I am, and atheist Israelis of Polish heritage have a warmth about them that I just can’t ignore, and actually identify with. As if she were the Jewish Grandmother I never had, only younger. Our common distaste for the often obtuse mannerisms and cold tact of the Dutch had brought us closer together than either of our companies had meant for us to be. It was supposed to be all business. But there we were, a year after our last official dealing had gone down, two friends just meeting for old times sake and a fix for caffeine.
But instinctively, we gravitated towards our most common aim — Politics.
“What’s this deal I’m hearing about MSNBC and FOX news?” she asked me, after our chatter had subsided. “I’m hearing all kinds of gibberish from ThinkProgress about some kind of truce between those two networks. As if that can be good for anybody.”
“ThinkProgress?” I chuckled. “Why the hell do you still read that stinking hippie tripe?”
“Oscar, are you drunk? It’s 10:30 in the morning. Are you not sleeping enough?” She asked me, with a very straight face.
“I never sleep enough,” I told her. “You know that.”
“You also drink too much, and I’d put an end to that too, if I didn’t think it’d affect your writing negatively,” she said. “I swear you get off on it.”
I didn’t respond, except with a tight-lipped shrug of the shoulders.
“Hippie tripe…” she trailed off, and then snapped at me from across the glass of water I’d been drinking. “ThinkProgress is just about the most reliable way to get a lead into a story the main press will likely ignore these days. Where do you think I get half my ideas for followups?” I stared into the ice in my water.
“Christ, I’m glad I got out when I did, then,” I said.
“Got out?” She asked. “What, ‘got out’? You didn’t get out. You’re neck deep in this nightmare, probably worse than me.”
I sighed after she’d finished. “Tell me about it,” I said, leaning back on the cusion in my woven bamboo chair. “No — I mean, got out of this local scandal shit and into the global scene,” I said, pausing, “you know, business dealings in Africa, socialist policies in the EU, Labor conditions in the MercoSul, humanitarian issues in China, real ground conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq and who’s profitting from it…that kind of thing. The real news.”
She grinned at me with tightly pursed lips and then burst out into a hearty laughter, a heartfelt glee I hadn’t witnessed in quite some time. She belly laughed for a quarter minute or so before she became coherent enough to stammer a reply.
“You’re daft!” She chuckled, raising her hand and waving down the waiter. “‘the real news…’ — listen to yourself. You know who you sound like? You sound like those tikes from Rolling Stone, idealistic as if they still wrote for their school newspapers.” She put her hand on her chest and recovered, “Oh…my,” she sighed.
“What?” I protested. “You’d rather I be wasting my time covering what Rupert Murdoch wants me to spread about MSNBC and FOX news being civilized to each other?” I drew a breath.
“First of all, like you said, it’s gibberish. More importantly, it’s self-serving. Who benefits from that? People who like drama’s who. There’s no drama as good as quarreling lovers, and a peace accord is just a sign of a larger battle to come. Who knows…maybe Murdoch is planning on buying MSNBC as well. It doesn’t server the people at all.”
She was still laughing. I accepted it, and toned down my rhetoric.
“But who cares, right?” I said, sort of giving in. “Nothing does anyway… but that’s not news, it’s theatrics. That’s show business.” I thought about it for another moment. “And what’s wrong with being serious about journalism for a change?” I asked her, still feeling somewhat challenged.
“No,” she said, “It’s politics.” She took a deep breath. “Look, there’s nothing wrong with writing it, I guess,” she finished chuckling. “Just keep your expectations of your readers low. Nobody reads that stuff, Oscar. Nobody cares.”
“Fuck caring,” I snapped, “they just need to know. Then they’ll care.”
“Sure,” she said, “why not? But in the meantime they’re too comfortable in their routines to be outraged by ‘the real news’, as you so astutely put it. Enough of them haven’t been near enough to real oppression for some time now, I’d say since — oh, I don’t know…Carter?” She looked at me as she flagged down the waiter again. “I thought you’d have learned that by now.”
“Carter?” I coughed. “Why Carter?”
“Well, I’d say Clinton, because he didn’t do anything, but then I’d be tempted to go back to Bush Sr., since he got away with that ridiculous war in the Gulf on the same repeated premise of Vietnam, not to mention Panama and his involvement with Reagan in the Contra affair. But then I have to go back to Reagan since he got away with much more than the Contras, like Nicaragua and Guatemala and the effective elimination of taxes for the upper classes, pretty much dooming everyone into the world we have today by creating the conditions for the drug war the US has with Central America and the Religious war the US has with the Middle East.”
I was eying her hard now.
“From there I have to bounce back to Carter, who needed to flex his muscles for the business world as the new Democrat. Did you know that in spite of running on the Demoractic platform, he actually raised military spending from what Nixon and Ford had set during their regime, as has every administration since, regardless of the need or mandate?”
Now I was just impressed at her reservoir of deplorable historical knowledge and smiled coyly at her. “No Vera, I did not know that.” I loved how pointed she could be with her facts, which is, of course, why she was my main lead for stories on this kind of issue.
“So I’m tempted to go back to Ford and Nixon, but that seems not only obvious since they were republicans in the middle of the Vietnam War but they also got their share of protesting in that day and age, when people still had it in them. So I bounce back on Carter, who had the chance to change it all, to bring real democracy to that land of yours and instead kept the same old system that serves the rich by means of many avenues, most pointedly, the military industrial complex, while keeping the population from rebelling, revolting, protesting or even just paying attention simply by giving them enough crumbs to keep them more interested in solving their petty problems while ignoring the larger ones that cause everything else in the first place.”
“Fascinating,” I said to her, smiling.
“My point, Oscar, in all seriousness, is this: no reporter, newspaper, network or any other agency has been able to break through the public’s disillusionment with the establishment for well over thirty years. And even disillusionment is not enough to cause revolution…”
“Just a coup, probably,” I interrupted.
“Right. For a revolution you also need outrage, which comes from desperation, from passion, from the inhibition of the human condition. The desire to break free. If enough people have enough desires satisfied, or at least, enough of what they think are desires satisfied, then you’ve crumbled that people’s ability to rise together, where their numbers matter, where their opinion counts for something. The civilized world of the US has lost its ability to outrage,” she eyed me, glaringly now.
It made me a little uneasy.
“So tell me, world traveler; what the hell do you mean by ‘real news’?” She asked me. “Get a grip, man.”
The waiter finally came over and took our orders. Vera ordered a triple espresso, to which I raised an eyebrow before deciding to make it two. Fuck it, I thought. It’s business as usual, I guess.
“So what else did ThinkProgress say?”
Several hours later, in business class seat 1A of the 747 bound for JFK, I smiled as I thought of what we’d said. With Amsterdam safely behind me and all caught up with the latest headlines from my several sources, I sipped my scotch and coffee, without mixing the two. That’s another trick I’ve learned about staying focused when you need it. Irish coffee, which is fun and comes at you easily and curvacious the way the continental shelf around Ireland does from 40,000 ft, is not a drink for focus. You have to keep the coffee and whiskey separate, much like your style and objective.
And if we can have both style AND objective, there would seem to be no limit to what we can reach when we drink enough whiskey and then put pen to paper.